It’s finally here! Virginia Tech’s Biomedical Engineering (BME) undergraudate degree was approved by the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) in September! As a graduate student in BME at VT, I am very excited to see the major expand and for future opportunities to teach, mentor, and work with undergraduate students in the field…on VT’s campus. There are now 4 universities in Virginia offering 4-year bachelor’s degrees in bioengineering/biomedical engineering, including my alma mater:
- Virginia Tech
- University of Virginia (wahoowa!)
- George Mason University
- Virginia Commonwealth University
I am extremely happy with my choice to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in BME. The field is interdisciplinary by nature and I found that in undergrad I particularly enjoyed the core engineering, technology, and design classes over the biology- and chemistry-heavy courses. I think it’s great that Virginia Tech has designed the BME undergrad around the university’s strengths in engineering. From Virginia Tech’s website:
Unlike other programs of its kind, which tend to concentrate instruction in biology and pre-medicine, Virginia Tech’s program requires six core courses in fundamental engineering principles. This approach means students will gain a more comprehensive understanding of broader engineering practice and cross-disciplinary teambuilding, which are both perceived as an advantage in industry.
The template schedule online shows that the program will utilize course offerings in other engineering departments including Engineering Science and Mechanics (ESM), Materials Science Engineering (MSE), and Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).
So what does it take to get a new degree going? First, in Virginia, SCHEV must approve a new degree. Check! The approval for VT BME undergrad has been years in the making and required extensive planning.
In addition to approval, there is accreditation. Accreditation is a process of validation for higher education, providing assurance that a institution or a program meets certain standards. Employers, particularly government employers, may look specifically for “individuals who have graduated from an accredited educational institution,” just check out the qualifications section on USA Jobs postings. According to the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs by the U. S. Department of Education (USDE), VT has been accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) since January 1, 1923 and the next review date will be December 10, 2019. SACSCOC is a regional accrediting organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the USDE. It oversees the Southern states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
Programs can also be accredited. ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) is a non-governmental, non-profit organization that accredits associate, bachelor, and master degree levels for applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology. ABET accreditation is voluntary, but many programs take part because ABET accreditation is important to engineering employers. UVA BME was undergoing ABET accreditation review when I was there, and what this meant for me as a student was a couple extra deliverables for my Capstone Senior Design class. Interestingly, ABET is recognized by CHEA but is not currently (but was formerly) recognized by the USDE. What’s the significance of this? Basically, this means no access to government Title IV funds, but also no other government strings attached. As the ABET President wrote, “Public commentary has also obscured differences between accrediting groups recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as Title IV “gatekeepers,” and others—like ABET—who choose not to be subject to DoE oversight, since we have no role in monitoring an institution’s compliance with federal student loan program requirements.”
Bottom line, understanding approval and accreditation for a new engineering degree entails a lot of acronyms and politics but it is important to have an awareness of the standards expected from employers. Now that VT has received approval for the BME undergrad degree it will be interesting to watch ABET accreditation unfold. To be eligible for ABET accreditation assessment, a program must have a least one graduate, which means it will be at least 3 or 4 years until assessment for the VT BME undergrad. And then it’s an 18-month accreditation process. Not to mention, I’ve only talked about ABET accreditation here, but universities also have internal approval and accreditation processes to ensure quality education. Basically, it’s a long road to introduce a new degree at an institution for higher education. The VT BME undergrad major has been anxiously awaited and I look forward to seeing the interdisciplinary degree grow and mature in Blacksburg!